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An Orwellian view of climate change

  • 12 July 2019


A few years ago, there was a spike in the sales of George Orwell's 1984. One of the reasons cited was Kellyanne Conway's infamous interpretation of 'falsehoods' as 'alternative facts'. As Orwell scholar, Professor Stefan Collini, explained, 'That kind of unreality that is propagated as reality [in the world of 1984] is what people feel reminded of'.

What Orwell's reaction might have been to the Trump regime is a fascinating if rather pointless speculation. But it occurred to me at the time of Conway's mind boggling 'logical' leaps that, if we are going to insist on imagining Orwell facing the complexities of 21st century populism, it might be equally fascinating to wonder about Orwell and climate change. For this there is extensive and persuasive evidence throughout his works.

Writing to Henry Miller on 26 August 1936, Orwell confessed to having 'a sort of belly to earth attitude and always feel[ing] uneasy when I get away from the ordinary world where grass is green, stones hard etc.' As if to illustrate the integrity of this revelation, he interrupts the letter because he has 'to go and milk the goat'.

Orwell was living in Wallington, Hertfordshire. He had rented a tiny, 300 year old lath and plaster cottage, sight unseen. There he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier and also set to work to make the house habitable and the plot productive. After a few hard-working months, he was making much progress on all these projects so, when he interrupted his letter to Miller, he really did have to milk the goat!

By 'belly to earth', however, Orwell meant not only the uncomplicated, hands-on approach he threw himself into at Wallington (and in later life, at Barnhill on the Hebridean island of Jura) as recorded in his domestic diaries. It also and pre-eminently denoted a quality of engagement with the natural world that he saw to be threatened by the nature of what he considered to be the 'evil' times in which he lived — a feeling familiar to many in 2019.

Looked at from one point of view, Orwell's domestic diaries at Wallington, with their daily entries detailing the hens' egg production, the vagaries of the weather, bird watching, gardening preparations, and so on, seem trivial: '14-4-39: Cloudy, and a few small showers. No apple blossom anywhere yet. Eight eggs ... 15-4-39: Chilly, windy in the evening and light showers. Began clearing out rhubarb patch. Saw another